The Substance of Style #002: ‘Upperpeninsula’

As with records, it’s usually accurate to judge a book by its cover. Or, in the case of August Smith’s collection of poems called Upperpeninsula, its cover JPEG: a sleek design of an opaque black circle, its center cut away in the shape of the Upper Peninsula region of Michigan to reveal a deer lying dead (on the road?), blood streaks from an open eye.

It was exciting, a bit over-the-top, and a bit tragic. I was sold. (My good friend helped edit the collection and intro’d it in a post, which gave a nod to this series, so apologies about getting incestuous.)

The nine poems in the collection are written on the theme of the region where Smith lives, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula termed by locals as “the U.P.” Like the cover image suggests, the poems are nervy, somewhat ironic, and Modernist in craft.

The language is surprising, especially on the first read, clever and irreverent. But not as to turn you away from repeated readings.

Formally the poems are driven by echoes, end rhymes and internal rhymes. They take cue from historic conventions of lyric poetry, which is to say, as off-handed an attitude as they exude, they are actually well-crafted poems, and it’s clear that Smith pays a lot of attention to poetic structure.

This through-line with tradition is broken up with Smith’s particular inflection of speech, maybe you could call it a non-urbanite vernacular or a putting on of “shit kid” talk – compulsive, back-woods, nervous machismo.

There’s guns and blood. Wild animals and the elements make appearances in endearingly, or desperately, anthropomorphized form. My favorites are “Burnouts at the Ski Jump” with the the endlessly satisfying phrase “‘Smith vs. / the Sky'” and “DNR” with the line “shit, dude, their faces are half-weaponized.”

“Another Dream” is the most tender one in the collection, though really, the poems all have some tenderness.

The last poem, “Something Like a Family Myth, I Guess” does not have the same sure-footedness as the others, but it works as an ending. It reveals a lot more clues about living in the U.P., contends with history and family, and is much more sincere and somber. It’s nice for failing to reach an ending, and as a framework for rereading the earlier poems.

One of the defining things about hipness and youth is “the scene” – being part of one, being inside one, speaking the language of one. If you don’t live in this area of northern Michigan, then you’re by default not part of the U.P. family. Smith’s take on regional writing, usually associated with nature poetry, turns the regional into “the scene,” like a club to want to get in at.

There are particularities and references to the U.P. you and I will probably never understand, but Smith never makes us feel outsider to it. Yeah, he’ll let you in.

The minimalist format online suits the collection well, but apparently a print version also exists. If you want one, maybe try bugging him.

Upperpeninsula by August Smith,, 2012.

The Substance of Style is a series on new works by “hip young writers.”


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